Improvements in courtroom atmosphere and sensitised judicial processes are enabling child sex abuse survivors to give clinching testimony, leading to higher conviction

Himanshi Dhawan & Rebecca Samervel | TNN

In January, a court in Rajasthan’s Churu sent 21-year-old Dayaram Meghwal to life imprisonment, 17 days after he had raped a fouryear-old girl

Last December, two men were sentenced to 20 years of imprisonment for the kidnapping and rape of a five-year-old in Delhi’s Gandhi Nagar

Last November, a Mumbai court served a 10-year sentence to a man convicted of raping his neighbour’s six-year-old daughter

In Mumbai, a five-year-old girl scribbles in a brightly lit room with aquarium scenes painted on the walls. Within minutes, she has to depose in a neighbouring courtroom or judge’s chamber, recalling details of the sexual assault she endured.

Child sexual abuse cases have long been marked by judicial delay, hostile witnesses and acquittals. But now, there may be a ray of hope. Convictions have been increasing under the special Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act, based on the sterling testimonies of minor survivors.

Days before her testimony, Gudiya (name given to the 5-year-old Delhi child who was gang-raped) sat with Bachpan Bachao Andolan counsellors, who fought the case and helped the survivor deal with the trauma through conversations, play and colouring activities. Gudiya had to go through six surgeries. Her case went on for six-and-a-half years. “A minor who has gone through such trauma has to be carefully dealt with. We even conduct mock court-sessions to help children overcome their hesitation in speaking about the assault,” says Sampurna Behura, BBA spokesperson.

Though the POCSO act became law in 2012, changes in infrastructure and judicial staff training took a couple of years and the results can be seen now with testimonies of minors that have ended in convictions. Courts in Delhi, Mumbai and other cities are proactively creating a more comforting environment where children are able to testify leading to convictions. Child-friendly rooms with toys, colouring books, separate waiting areas for the survivor and the accused, and one-way glass for identification parades are some of the provisions that have been implemented.

In Delhi, the survivor meets a counsellor and waits in a child-friendly room with toys and cartoons. The testimony happens in a ‘vulnerable witness deposition room’, separate from the main courtroom, and the survivor never sees the accused. The judge asks questions through a counsellor, or sometimes directly, but lawyers are not allowed to do the same.

“We try to build a rapport, ask a parent to stay with the child if they are nervous, and ask questions about their friends or school, to put them at ease. We only ask about the incident once the child is comfortable,” a Delhi district court judge says.

In Mumbai, children are given a choice to depose in the courtroom, judge’s chamber or in the childfriendly room. A judge who has been overseeing POCSO Act cases for the last two years, says that she ensures that the child visits the premises once before the day she or he actually deposes. “I make them sit next to me, talk to them in a friendly manner, offer chocolates, colour pencils or whatever they want, to ensure that they do not feel intimidated,” she adds.

When the deposition is being conducted in the judge’s chambers, she makes sure not to wear the formal gown. In one instance, a 7-year-old confided that she was uncomfortable speaking in front of her mother and the lawyers. “I asked the child to face me and turn her back on the others. She gave all the details of the abuse and on the basis of her testimony, the accused was convicted and sentenced to three years,” the officer recalled.

“We have to make the sure the child is not adversely affected while recounting the trauma, says Varun Saini, public prosecutor in Rajasthan’s Churu court. And so, the fouryear-old was able to clearly tell the judge what had happened and even identify the perpetrator. The special POCSO court gave life-imprisonment to 21-year-old Meghwal, wrapping up the case in just 17 days.

Things have dramatically improved in the last two years, says Chandra Suman, a lawyer at the NGO Haq: Centre for Child Rights. He recalls a 2013 incident where a child victim was cross-examined by a defence lawyer as though she was an adult. “She was barely 5-6 years old and she was grilled about an assault that occurred nine months earlier. The case ended in an acquittal,” he says. Now, victims are asked more age-appropriate questions. “There is realisation that a minor’s version of events cannot be absolutely consistent over a period of time. The statement must be looked at as a whole,” he says.

While judicial officials can be trained to show more sensitivity and empathy, the battle begins at home — the family either fully supports the child or tries to shield the perpetrator who might be a relative or friend.

The parents of a now-11-year-old girl recall the difficulty of their decision to pursue the case. The man who assaulted her when she was six was her maternal uncle. “We were very angry when we first got to know that he had abused her, and lodged the FIR. But over time, with increasing pressure from relatives to forgive my 27-year-old cousin, we almost gave up. They kept telling us that while the child would forget about the incident, the man’s life would be destroyed forever,” the mother says. “We feared stigma and ostracism. But when the time came to depose, after speaking to our prosecutor, we realised that our child’s interest was paramount and getting her justice was most important,” says the father. The child’s deposition, supported by her mother’s testimony, ensured that the accused received a 10-year sentence.

In the Churu case, while the rapist was punished, the family and the survivor are still suffering. “My granddaughter still has nightmares and is afraid of the dark. She screams in fear if she’s left alone in a room for even a short time,” says the child’s grandfather.

The trauma of sexually abused children is not easily mitigated. Advocate Persis Sidhwa, who works with survivors, says that the situation is far from ideal. “While the conviction rate has measurably increased, I am not sure if we can say it has created a more childfriendly criminal justice system. There is still an inordinate delay in trials. This contravenes the law, which mandates that the trial be completed within a year,” she says.